The Hype on Hemp
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As most have heard by now, it became possible to legally grow industrial hemp in North Carolina in 2017 with the formation of the NC Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. This program has allowed licensed growers to produce hemp (Cannabis spp.) for research and commercial purposes. In 2018, 433 people were licensed to grow hemp in NC. Hemp grow in over 200,000 acres outdoors in NC, and in roughly 2,000,000 square feet of greenhouse and indoor space. One farm grew hemp in Caldwell County in 2018, and there will likely be at least 3 farms growing in 2019.
Cannabis is a part of the Cannabaceae plant family. Hops (Humulus lupulus), a component in beer, also belong to this family.
It is a dioecious plant, meaning that it produces male and female flowers on separate plants. Both a male and female plant must be grown in close proximity of one another in order for pollination to occur, and for seed to be formed. While the same species of plants (Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis) are grown as marijuana, industrial hemp strains are those lower in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive chemical found in higher concentrations in marijuana strains. State law limits the varieties grown in the NC Industrial Hemp program to those with a history of having less than 0.3% THC, meaning there is no “high” obtained from consuming the hemp plant and hemp products. While plants are similar in looks, smell, and feel, typical marijuana plant would contain a THC level of around 25%.
Hemp can be grown for at least 3 major purposes. Distinct varieties of hemp exist for each purpose. One set of varieties are grown for seed production. Seeds are used for food- they are very nutritious, with high protein content, omega-3 fatty acid content, iron, and more. The seeds can be pressed into oil and meal; the latter is being investigated for its use as animal feed at NC State University. Another use is for the production of fiber-based goods such as textiles, paper, or construction- related materials. Hemps grown for fiber grow very tall and put much of their energy into doing vegetative biomass, rather than flowers or seed.
A third variety is grown for cannabidiol (CBD) compounds, owing to popularity for potentially calming and medicinal benefits. Cannabidiol production initiates through the same physiological pathway as THC, but does not offer the same psychoactive effect. The flowering parts of the plant contain the highest concentration of cannabidiol, so only female plants are grown when this is the target product. Once harvested, the high CBD parts can be dried and consumed in a number of ways, including as an extracted oil. Hemp grown for seed or fiber often resembles a typical crop field, such as one used for wheat or soybeans. Hemp grown for CBD has been more frequently grown like vegetable crops or tobacco, with wider plant spacing, and often on black or white plastic.
One of the challenges with the burgeoning hemp industry is that farmers will be growing hemp in close proximity to one another but with different end products as their goal. Growing male and female plants, as required for seed production, in close proximity to an all-female hemp field being cultivated for CBD, can lead to pollen transfer to the female CBD plants. Once pollinated, the CBD plants will often have much lower CBD content and will also produce seed, creating a headache during processing. This can reduce revenue for the grower, and even yield and unmarketable crop. These proximity concerns could become a major point of discussion in statewide hemp programs as more and more growers get into the business.
The 2018 Farm Bill brought some changes to laws surrounding industrial hemp. However, many of the same tenets apply to hemp production as they did before the 2018 Farm Bill. Industrial hemp can still only be grown by people participating in their states hemp program. In North Carolina, farmers interested in growing hemp must apply for a license to grow it and must agree to grow strains with a history of low THC levels, and they must provide geographical coordinates for where the plants will be grown. Restrictions apply- for example- a person must be filing taxes as a farmer before their application is accepted. Someone that owns land but does not file taxes as a farmer does not qualify for the program. One thing that the 2018 Farm Bill changed was federal oversight of hemp as a crop. Hemp was previously regulated by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), and CBD was classified as a drug, like the THC in marijuana. This classification limited transportation of any hemp plant matter within and between states. It also limited sales marketing of hemp-based products. New rules mean that hemp products are now regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. This opens up pathways for hemp products reaching useful markets, though the products are highly unregulated as of yet.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is the body that tests and regulates food health supplements. As of yet, they do not test hemp-based products for their medicinal quality, nor quality in general. Nutrition facts and ingredients are not required on the labels of hemp-based non-food products like CBD –based products. Therefore, purchasing and consuming any of these products is risky. Some companies have voluntary testing and disclosure policies and provide relevant information openly to consumers. However, this is not required, and many products may be sold as CBD but they may lack any information about concentration, ingredients, potency, residues, and more.
Growing hemp is also risky business for farmers. Researchers, farmers, and Extension professionals are all learning a lot about how to grow this plant, following its decades-long hiatus from our farm fields. Currently, there are no pesticides registered for use on hemp in North Carolina, so in the event of severe pest pressure, farmers have to deal with losses if a crop is destroyed by insects or disease. There are several studies being conducted in 2019 that will also investigate the fate of pesticides in hemp products, knowing that many people are interested in consuming hemp as a medicinal product. There are few reliable markets for selling hemp in the region because hemp has only recently become legally available. So, you could grow a crop and then find yourself with nowhere to sell it or unreliable outlets. However, there are more and more registered processors coming on board each day, and eventually, technology will develop around creating hemp-based products. It is a plant with lots of potential uses.
For those interested in learning more, visit the industrial hemp portal on NC State’s website. This website lists upcoming informational meetings on hemp production. For more information on NC’s Industrial Hemp Program that regulates licensing and processing, see the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program in North Carolina page. If you have other questions about growing hemp, contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center at 828-757-1290.